There are many reviews and essays out there
in cyber-space dealing with Tsui Hark's Swordsman films. More often than
not, they focus on each film individually or digress at great lengths about
the androgynous appeal of Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia's gender shifting character,
Asia The Invincible, from Swordsman 2 and The East Is Red (commonly referred
to as Swordsman III). More often than not, the first film in the series,
Swordsman, gets ignored; Swordsman 2 usually gets most of the acknowledgment
and praise; and The East Is Red is written off as being too chaotic and
not having any legitimate connection to the first two films. It was because
of this, that I owned a copy of Swordsman 2 many months before seeing the
prior and subsequent film. The general consensus amongst reviewers and
fans of Hong Kong cinema was that Swordsman 2 was the only film that was
really worth seeing and that it stood just fine on its own. Not that Swordsman
2 isn't an amazing fantasy/swordplay masterpiece that one can enjoy without
seeing its predecessor and successor. But after finally seeing the other
two films, I was greatly impressed by their quality and surprised how well
the three films worked together as a whole.
Laughing and Proud Warrior
Laughing and Proud Warrior 2: Invincible Asia
Invincible Asia 2: Turbulence Again Rises
When one watches The East Is Red as Invincible Asia 2, rather than Swordsman III, it makes a lot more sense. However, the films still work as a trilogy when placed together...just not in the traditional sense. The trilogy has two central characters: Ling and Asia The Invincible. Each have a film without the other and the centerpiece of the trilogy (Swordsman 2) acts as a dialogue between these two characters. There is a deeper, spiritual significance to this unique narrative structure that will be explored later.
I had the pleasure of first seeing Swordsman on the big screen at a Tsui Hark film retrospective in New York City. I almost didn't see the film, because I figured there had to be a reason why most fans cite the second film as being so much better. Fortunately, a friend I was with convinced me that for only nine bucks I should give the movie a shot (especially, since we were planing on seeing Swordsman 2 afterwards). Swordsman has to be the most under-rated film in the history of modern-day cinema. It is arguably superior to Swordsman 2 and it’s beyond me why this film isn't hyped up more than it is. The audience at the film retrospective enjoyed the movie immensely and I dare say, more than they enjoyed Swordsman 2 (which, in all fairness, suffered from a later viewing and a bad print). Either way, there should be no denying how excellent a film the first Swordsman is. I don't know how a film that had several directors (four which are credited) and had numerous production problems turned out to be such a quality piece of coherent film-making....well, thank god for movie miracles. Along with legendary Hong Kong director, King Hu (Touch of Zen), Tsui Hark (Peking Opera Blues, Once Upon A Time In China) takes the director's seat on this one (he is credited only as the producer for the sequels) and propels the film with a kinetic and humorous flare. He also augments it with touching (but never maudlin) humanity. Swordsman pays homage to more traditional swordplay movies of the past, while issuing in a hyper-active style of wire-work that later films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are much indebted to. Some Western reviewers complain that the plot and action in Swordsman is hard to follow. Is it any wonder they have problems with The East Is Red, if a relatively straightforward swordplay film like Swordsman is too much for their fragile sensibilities? Swordsman lacks a grandiose villain like Asia The Invincible, but that is not necessarily a shortcoming. There is a time and place for everything; Laughing and Proud Warrior is Ling's story.
The funny and likable Sam Hui plays Ling, of the Wah Mountain martial arts school. With his tomboyish sidekick, Kiddo (played by Cecilia Yip), tagging along, Ling is sent on a mission that leads the innocent and honest swordsman into the midst of calamity and a power-struggle. Taking place during the Ming Dynasty, a diabolical eunuch (there are a lot of these in martial art period pieces) and his henchmen seek to obtain a Sacred Scroll, which reveals the technique of gaining supernatural powers. Through a various chain of events and spectacular action sequences, Ling and Kiddo are caught in this conflict, which has many dubious individuals trying to locate the Sacred Scroll. Along the way, Ling and Kiddo come into contact with two aging, good-spirited swordsmen. One of them is a member of the Sun Moon Sect and has written a song entitled "Hero of Heroes". The song and their amicable nature makes quite an impression on Ling. As does an elderly tramp, who surprisingly turns out to be a master swordsman. Not only does Ling learn the "Wavering Sword" stance from this old warrior, but he is also given reason to mistrust his Master back at Wah Mountain. Finally and most importantly, Ling and Kiddo get entangled with the Sun Moon Sect—a gypsy like, superstitious group of Highlanders who are regarded unfavorably by the more sophisticated Mainlanders. The Highlander Chief is a stoic, whip-cracking woman named Ying (played by Cheung Man). Her lascivious, snake-shooting sidekick, Blue Phoenix, is played by Fennie Yuen (whose stand-out charm was rewarded by being asked to reprise her role in the next film—the rest of the Swordsman cast was not bestowed such an honor). By the end of the film, Ling falls in the favor of these women, who assist him in fighting against the evil eunuch. Subsequently, Ling must duel against his own Master, who turns out to be a devious man that betrays his own students for the chance to acquire the Sacred Scroll. Ling and his female friends survive the ordeal, but the young swordsman is left forever disenchanted with the martial arts world.
On the surface, Swordsman is a witty and cleverly woven action-romp that never loses its momentum and never ceases to entertain. Beneath its whirling exterior, however, it is a stirring fable about the corrupt nature of bureaucratic societies. In the film, only the characters with the most power (the Imperial Court; the Wah Mountain's School Master; etc.) seek out the Scroll and at all moral costs. Whereas the more meager and downtrodden characters (the Wah Mountain students; the tramp; the nomadic Highlanders; etc.) have a much stronger moral code, which places honor and loyalty far ahead of the Sacred Scroll. In a hilarious exchange between the Master of Wah Mountain School and Ling, the Master unsuccessfully tries to exploit his young pupil's adherence to the school's rules in order to get him to break his word and reveal the location of the Scroll. By the end of the exchange, it is exposed that the student is far more knowledgeable of the school's rules than his Master, which prohibit him from breaking his word. Essentially, the people in society who make and enforce the laws are the first people to ignore or misuse them. During the film's climax, the following question is raised: Which is more important—a piece of paper that offers arbitrary and unlimited power or a piece of paper that offers a rousing piece of music written by a friend? The tramp that Ling encounters in the middle of the movie is a wandering recluse who wants nothing to do with the ways of the not so-civil, civilized world and Ling later follows the example. The underlining theme of Swordsman is that there are fundamental moral truths in nature and humanity that oligarchies distort in order to gain or maintain power. Thus being, is it not better to simply distance one's self from such an insidious and debauched society? Is it not better to just laugh with your friends and sing "Hero of Heroes" while the Imperial bastards hang themselves with their own rope?